Un des plus beaux villages de France
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Auvillar in english

Text in english updated by Nigel MacAllister, feb 2005, from a original translation.

INTRODUCTION

One of the most beautiful village of france

Situation and General Area

Auvillar is situated in south-west France, in the department (county) of Tarn et Garonne, which itself is part of the Midi-Pyrenees region of France. Auvillar is between the large cities of Toulouse (80 kms) and Bordeaux (140 kms), by the southern (left) bank of the River Garonne, on its long passage from the Spanish Pyrenees to its wide mouth above Bordeaux. By the time the river reaches Auvillar, it has already travelled over 300 kms and it about 100 metres wide. It has a further 150 kms to flow before it meets the Atlantic Ocean. In the past, the valley of the Garonne has flooded, leaving it very fertile and allowing good cultivation for a variety of crops on the alluvial plain. Auvillar is close to the towns of Valence d’Agen (5kms) and Moissac (15 kms), but these are both on the northern side of the river. The river, after Moissac, turns sharply west and this is one of 2 large curves in which the land between is known as the Gascon Plain. Auvillar itself is a hilltop village, but with a separate quarter of a port nestling under the village adjoining the river.

See the monuments in english

Then and Now

It is known that Auvillar was the site of an ancient community and was possibly rebuilt in Roman times. If it were possible to excavate beneath the site of the old castle (which belonged to the Earls of Armagnac), one could possibly find the original village, the remains of a Gallic “Oppidum”. It is known that this old site had been a monument of the Gallo-Roman period and the Middle Ages. We know that Auvillar existed during the period when the Romans were masters of Gaul. A roman road, probably one that connected Toulouse to Agen, passes by Auvillar. Fragments of mosaics have been found locally and old engravings uncovered.

Under the auspices of the local nobility in the Middle Ages the village of Auvillar played a more important part than in earlier times. Proof of this is found in debris from civil construction and in religious buildings. Towers and bastions strengthened the walls of the village. One of these towers was knocked down by the order of the Revolutionaries in 1794 and the last bastion was demolished in 1839.

Auvillar has always been a magnet to artists. During the 12th century, Macabrun, a poet and a musician, was born and lived in Auvillar. Most of the well-known troubadors at that time were noblemen, but Macabrun was not an aristocrat. Nevertheless, many people admired his humour and strived to imitate the literary techniques and the art of this famous Gascon. More recently, when the “Felibres” were active and well known, a number of Occitan poets lived in Auvillar, for instance, the blacksmith who hoped to provide his readers with “Lou pau d’or qu’ey dins la pensado” (Elie Pimpeterre 1872-1945). Until the beginning of the 20th century the “Macabrun School” participated in Occitan intellectual life.

More recently, the elaborately decorated ceramics of Auvillar were another important part of a long tradition. The very attractive artefacts and artistic objects were still being produced during the 19th century. A remarkable collection of ceramics made in Auvillar during the 18th and 19th centuries is to be found in the Auvillar Museum of Art. Today, Auvillar is still a very attractive village for artists looking for inspiration. Painters like to spend awhile quietly appreciating the calm and serenity of the village.

Nowadays, during the summer months in particular, the village sees the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compestella in Northern Spain, to pay their homage to Saint Jacques. The route of these pilgrims is lengthy (starting from many places in Europe) and many people return each year to walk a further length of the route, until they eventually complete. Most pilgrims walk, but some ride horses, some with mules, even one with a camel. There is a ‘gite’ available for the pilgrims in the village and a surprising amount of pilgrims return to the village later in order to enjoy the ambience of Auvillar for another time.

Artistic Links

Currently the village of Auvillar has a creative, acclaimed and well-respected potter in residence, with some work normally on display most days. There is also a large gallery housing a syndicate of 7 different artists, mainly painters, but including sculptors, in the centre of the village. In the quarter of Le Port there is a workshop and gallery of the Moulin a Nef, which is used now by artists sponsored by the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in USA. In addition, there are many artists from other countries often in residence. These artists are often invited to stay in accommodation provided by the village. During the summer you could encounter French artists, German musicians and singers or American painters, sculptors and musicians all staying locally. By no means least, mention needs also be made of our resident calligrapher and letter-engraver whose work in stone, as well as other materials, is recognised as outstanding : Bruno Riboulot.

“Viens Peindre Auvillar” (Come to paint Auvillar) is the name of an important artistic event that takes place over a weekend at the end of July. The event, now over 10 years old, continues to grow and has become an International Festival of painting. It is a competition open to both professional and amateur painters.

Cultural Exchanges

Every year cultural exchange programmes occur between Auvillar and other French towns, and also with foreign countries; mainly Germany and the USA.

Auvillar Inhabitants

The people of Auvillar (‘Auvillarais’) are well known for their hospitality. They like to welcome tourists and any visitors. There are now more than 20 official organisations, each dedicated to the promotion of a special festivity or a particular leisure pastime. To obtain a list of these organisations contact: Office du Tourisme, Place de la Halle, 82340 Auvillar, tel. 05 63 39 89 82, or through this web-site. Alternatively, contact; Intersociete Auvillaraise, Le Senat, 82340 Auvillar, tel. 05 63 29 20 06.

The restaurants.

In particular, the following organisations have become well known well beyond the bounds of Auvillar and deserve a special mention.

The Friends of Old Auvillar. (Les Amis du Vieil Auvillar) are responsible for a number of excellent artistic and cultural events. A special page is dedicated to the subject: Auvillar, City of the Arts. (Find this at the end of this article.)

The Brulhois Dancers. (Les Danseuses du Brulhois) comprise of about 30 amateurs. Their aim is to keep alive not only the folklore traditions of music, songs and dances, but also the Occitan language and culture. They perform throughout France, other European countries and abroad. In recent times they have given performances in Ireland, Canada and the USA. Their contact is; Les Danseuses du Brulhois, Cave Co-operative du Canton d’Auvillar, 82340 Donzac.

WINE

Auvillar is within the wine growing area of the Cotes du Brulhois. Brulhois is well known for its red and rose wines, with an ever growing and deserved good reputation. Try them and you may be pleasantly surprised. You can taste the wines at the Cave and at the local independent growers. Contact; Cotes du Brulhois, Cave de Donzac, 82340 Donzac, or www.brulhois.com

THE PORT OF AUVILLAR

Until the middle of the 19th century the River Garonne was navigable from Bordeaux and was used to transport salt from the sea, and wine and grain to the sea. It also provided the means of personal transport. It is thought that the original harbour of the Port at Auvillar was tolled as it is known that tolls were collected there in 1204. By the year 1789 there were still 49 sailors’ families living in Auvillar. These mariners were professionals operating the barges or boats (batellerie) on the river. They were known to be energetic and daring, with an excellent knowledge of the often difficult river and they were justifiably proud of the prestige bestowed upon them. A motto commonly attributed to them was: “Although a villain on the land, on the water I am a Lord”. They spent 12 to 16 hours at work on the water, and then retired to a tavern for the night. Le Port at Auvillar was well supported by the mariners, as it was a compulsory stop because of the tolls.

THE CHAPEL OF SAINT CATHERINE AT LE PORT

The mariners were also religious people, having their own church or chapel in almost every harbour. Almost all of these were dedicated to Saint Catherine who was regarded as the patron saint of the river people, as well as philosophers. In Le Port, you can still find the chapel of Saint Catherine, although unfortunately it is in a state of disrepair.

The mariners would offer gifts to thank their patron saint. They bought or made themselves these gifts called “ex-votos”. A lot of these have been found in the chapel; many of them are warships. The museum in Auvillar carefully keeps some on display. Also on display, after being found in the chapel in Le Port, is painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

The chapel was probably first built in the “Carolingian” period. Today, it is just possible to make out, above the main entrance of the chapel, a monogram of Christ dating from the IX century. This chrism is a major symbol of Christendom in ancient times. It shows in particular the Greek letters ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’ (the beginning and the end) and the first 2 letters of the Christians, in Greek, the X and P.

Unfortunately there is little left of this monogram whose symbolism is so ancient. To ensure preservation of this chapel for the future, the village has an active association dedicated to this end.

AUVILLAR POTTERY

The pottery of Auvillar first appeared at the end of the 17th century. At the time Louis XIVth was engaged in disastrous wars, which necessitated his demanding from the nobility, the clergy and the middle classes their crockery made of gold, silver and silver gilt. This was smelted to provide funds for the King.

The same citizens were invited to develop and pay for the manufacture of earthenware pottery similar to that which already existed in Rouen, Never, etc., decorated in blue. Polychrome (the use of more than one colour) came afterwards (in the 19th century).

The basic soil (clay and chalk) was extracted from quarries around Auvillar. It was then purified, kneaded, washed and sifted before storing for 5-6 months.

The earthenware pieces were fashioned by moulding, then turning on a wheel before being fired for the first time at 1000? Celsius, which gives a biscuit finish. The biscuit finished objects are steeped in a solution with a base of oxide of lead and oxide of pewter which gives them the glaze.

After some hours, when the glaze was dry, the artist decorated the piece. These were produced in 3 ways: 1. By hand and inspired by the artist. 2. “Le pencif”: The design is traced on a board pierced by small holes on which one rubs the back with charcoal, which is printed to guide the decorator. 3. The stencil: which is achieved by painting with a brush through a pre-cut card. One needs a different stencil for each colour.

The painters used a base of oxidised metals: 1. Copper for the green. 2. Antimony or iron for the yellow. 3. Cobalt for the blue. 4. Magnesium for the violet or brown. The red and orange were made by using the red earth from Thiviers (a village in the Dordogne).

When the decoration was finished, the piece was fired a second time. The castings were stacked in fireproof cylinders called “gazettes” and separated by wedges called “pernettes”. The cylinders were then placed in an oven fired with wood, and heated to 900? for 30 to 36 hours. After cooling for 24 hours, the pottery could be inspected to verify the process.

This process produced thousands of dishes, plates and other pieces in Auvillar from 1750 to 1905 (1,300,000 in 1848 alone) in small companies called “fabriques”.

The mass production of pottery (Limoges particularly) was the reason for the decline of small potteries and the last one in Auvillar closed in 1905.

Thank you for your visit.

MUSEUM OF ART AND POPULAR TRADITIONS

Exhibited in this room are objects which, for the most part, have been donated by the people of Auvillar to preserve the memory of the village.

These items mostly show the traditional crafts, woodworking, wine coopers (barrel makers), etc. You will also find models made by the journeymen, in particular the model of the old bell of the church in Auvillar.

In addition you will find the ancient musical instruments used for the ancient fanfare, known as the “ Lyre Auvillaraise”. Even with these inanimate objects you will begin to discover the soul of the village.

THE PORT AND THE TRADITIONS OF THE RIVER GARONNE

The history of Auvillar and its social and economic existence is clearly linked to the river Garonne. For centuries, the Garonne was the link between the different regions of Aquitaine and the Languedoc. A vast commercial network developed with a privileged system of taxes and tolls.

From the 12th century, Auvillar became an important centre for tolls. By the 17th century the central office for taxes in the Lomagne area was situated here.

Many traditional occupations linked to transportation by water developed along the river banks and benefited the local economy.

The main river activity was the transportation of goods (pottery, goose feathers, wine, wheat, the woad of Lauragais, textiles, wood, etc.) being the produce of Auvillar and other adjacent regions.

In 1836, the Port had 1214 inhabitants. In 1837, 2256 boats made the journey between Agen and Auvillar. In 1841, 150,000 tonnes of merchandise transited through the Port of Auvillar.

The river flows towards Bordeaux, but the current of the Garonne can be very strong and called for great skill by the boat crews to avoid being shipwrecked.

The journey upriver from Bordeaux towards Toulouse was much more difficult. It was achieved by towing “la Tire”. Men were attached to a harness with ropes to pull the boat. Later oxen or horses replaced the men.

An additional obstacle to the navigation came from the “Moulins à Nef”, flour mills, which were put on two boats tied together with a paddle-wheel between the two. This produced a classic system of milling. These mills moored in the current of the river considerably hindered the navigation to such an extent that they were forbidden from 1840.

The powerful river men called the “Maîtres des Bateaux” directed the economic life of the river.

There is an old chapel in the Port of Auvillar, the foundations of which were begun in the reign of Charlemagne during the 8th century. This chapel is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of the sailors of the region. Many sailors offered their thanks there on returning from the water to the countryside.

The construction of the Canal du Midi, built to the side of the Garonne, commenced during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The opening of the section from Bordeaux to Toulouse in 1855 mirrored the beginning of the end of the river traffic on the Garonne.

Today, there is no longer a working port in Auvillar, merely memories and the calm of the banks of the Garonne.

The Pilgrims of Saint Jacques of Compostella

Auvillar is an important halt on the route taken by the pilgrims of Saint Jacques of Compostella. A hostel (which is managed by both the office of the Mayor of Auvillar and the Tourist office) welcomes pilgrims. Auvillar has all the normal commercial facilities; restaurants, a small supermarket, newsagent, hairdresser, chemist, butcher, baker, post office, doctor, dentist and a police station. Auvillar is happy to welcome all pilgrims, walkers, those on bicycles and on horseback

Starting from ‘Le Puy en Velais’, or possibly further away than that, or perhaps closer, you should leave the beautiful Roman city of Moissac in the lower Quercy to pass into our beautiful Garonne countryside and place your feet on Gascony soil as you cross the river bridge. High on a rocky spur above the river sits our ancient village of ‘Alta-Villar’ and it offers you a calm stay in its well-appointed ‘gite’, which also offers you a magnificent view over the Garonne river valley. Auvillar is a classified site with a number of historic buildings, two museums and additionally is one of the identified prettiest villages in France. You will be charmed and amazed by our Corn Market, situated in the circular centre of the village. The centre is surrounded by overhanging balconies. You can visit our 11th century Church, dedicated to Saint Peter. Here you will find, visible in a bell-chamber, the bells, which are unexpectedly beautiful. In addition, there is a wonderful chancel and steles with a crypt containing old relics. Since 25 July 2003, you may meditate in front of a statue of Saint Jacques the senior, carved from black wood (dating from the 18th or 19th century, donated by the present Bishop). At the entrance to the church, a presentation has been mounted showing photographs of the Crosses of Calvary you will see at different points along the route of Saint Jacques, from Le Puy en Valais to Compostella. The names of these halts are indicated on the small panels on ropes. To see more

by Christine MacAllister

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